Food insecurity is a wide-spread problem in the United States — and the pandemic has made it worse. Feeding America projected that up to 50 million Americans would experience food insecurity in 2020. This number includes many low-wage workers, as well as individuals who have never experienced food insecurity before.
Nutrition assistance can help millions of Americans keep food on the table. But knowing where to find it can feel overwhelming.
So, we asked three experts who work with food insecure individuals for advice. They provide helpful, practical tips to help you find healthy, nutritious food for yourself and your family.
“Food insecurity is defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources," explains a report from healthypeople.gov, a division of the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Food insecurity can mean skipping meals or not having enough food to feel full. People who experience food insecurity sometimes can't buy food until a check clears. They often can't afford enough healthy food to meet their nutritional needs.
Many factors combine to contribute to food insecurity. A lack of affordable housing and low wages force many workers to pay more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent. The cost of living increased in many places in 2020, chipping away at already tight household budgets.
Health, mobility and transportation challenges can make it difficult to purchase food. Some neighborhoods, reservations and rural communities qualify as food deserts, with limited access to healthy food.
Many low-wage workers live paycheck to paycheck. Other Americans depend on Social Security or disability payments, graduate school stipends or financial aid to pay their bills. One unexpected event can snowball into a financial disaster.
The unemployment rate soared from 3.8 percent in February 2020 to 14.4 percent in April 2020, according to a June report from PEW Research. Twenty million Americans were suddenly unemployed. That's the highest number since the Great Recession.
“In March, when jobs just completely disappeared, it was horrifying to watch," recalls Kerri Calvert, Chair of the Board for the School Street Food Pantry, which serves post-secondary students in Normal, IL. “Your job just disappeared overnight but all your bills still needed to be paid."
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the most recent unemployment report in December. The unemployment rate was 6.7 percent. That's down from the peak in April. But it's still almost twice as high as February's pre-pandemic levels.
Unemployment hasn't hit all Americans equally. The unemployment rate for Black and Hispanic workers was 9.9 percent and 9.3 percent respectively, compared to 6 percent for white workers and 5.9 percent for Asian workers
Widespread school and daycare closures forced parents to choose between childcare and a paycheck. The burden fell largely on women. Four times more female workers than male workers left the workforce.
White-collar workers can often work from home, while blue-collar employees and essential workers cannot. This puts them at increased risk for COVID exposure and long-term financial and health repercussions.
Business closures led to long-term unemployment. The same U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report noted that 37.1 percent of the unemployed had been jobless for 27 weeks or more.
Unemployment or illness can exhaust a household's resources quickly. Requests for food assistance have skyrocketed across the country.
“Before the pandemic, I would get 10 applications a day. Now it's 40 or 50," explains Brittani Haas, an office technician at Wright County Health and Human Services in Buffalo, Minnesota. “Now 70 percent of people that I talk to are applying because of issues with the pandemic. We're getting a lot of brand-new applicants."
The experts we interviewed said many applicants don't reach out until they're already experiencing food insecurity. Sometimes they're confused or overwhelmed. Just asking for help often brings up complicated emotions.
“There's a lot of misconceptions when it comes to financial assistance," says Haas. “The embarrassment and the shame is what I notice most. I tell them everybody needs help sometimes. We have these resources to help them get out this situation."
Food providers will refer you to services in your area. There are a variety of resources available. They include federal nutrition assistance, as well as emergency pandemic programs and community-based solutions.
"Don't be shy about accessing as many as possible," advises Calvert. "That's why we're here — so you can use that money to pay rent or buy your books. There's no shame in using help that's here."
Participation in these programs requires proof of income. Make an appointment with a county services provider to see if you qualify.
Many offices have implemented social distancing protocols. They provide extra peace of mind, remove the transportation barrier and let applicants register at their own pace.
“We're doing a lot of things over the phone, so you don't even have to come into the county to see if you're eligible," she explains. “They've created a really easy process to apply for benefits over the computer, so a lot of people take advantage of that."
One of the most well-known tools to fight food insecurity is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It provides prepaid card cards to buy food at grocery stores and farmers markets.
WIC (The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) provides nutrition assistance to low-income pregnant women and mothers with children up to age five. It features healthy food vouchers. It also offers nutrition education and breastfeeding support.
Many U.S. kids only get three meals a day when school is in session, so COVID-related school closures have increased food insecurity. Families who have lost access to free or reduced-price school meals can apply for Pandemic EDP Food Support.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds this nationwide program. It provides supplemental food during the weekends, after school and over summer vacation. Sites across the country distributed the food.
There are also resources close to home. Start in your own neighborhood, place of worship or community center. Or reach out through your existing social or professional networks.
“Start super local," recommends Jiwon McCartney, Founder and CEO of Fight2Feed, which offers services in Chicago, Kansas City, Atlanta, Boston and Pensacola, FL. “There's a lot of community support, a lot of initiatives emerging that are very focused on taking care of each other."
If you need food immediately, there are free meals served all over the country. Many have shifted to pre-prepared food bags and boxes instead of the traditional communal meal due to social distancing recommendations.
National organizations like The Salvation Army serve in many cities. Many homeless shelters and senior centers focus on their own specific populations. Meals served in churches, mosques, temples and community centers are usually open to all.
Food pantries distribute food to individuals in need. There are many food pantries in the U.S. Urban areas often have several.
They operate on three basic models: the standardized model, the choice model or a hybrid of the two. Some are income based.
This method provides the same food to every recipient, often in boxes or bags. It's easy for pantry workers to include nutritionally balanced meals and to distribute them quickly.
Some food pantries have switched to this model during the pandemic since it minimizes contact and maximizes social distancing. It also helps newcomers feel comfortable. McCartney has seen their drive-ups used for just this reason.
“They can just load up their car and go," she says. “They can go there and be anonymous."
The choice pantry encourages people to “shop" for their own items. They're helpful for individuals with food allergies and religious food restrictions. Those with limited cooking skills, storage space or kitchen utensils can choose only what they can use. Many food pantries stock items for people who only have a microwave, hotplate or countertop grill.
For kitchens equipped with an oven or stovetop, Calvert recommends choosing versatile staples like pasta, rice, beans, tomato sauce, ground chicken or beef. You can combine them to make several different meals. Food shelf workers can share how to make ingredients last. Friends and family can help you prepare food on a budget, too.
“Make friends with your home economics teacher or whoever cooked in your home," Calvert advises. “Be willing to stretch your knowledge. You're going to have to grow as a cook in order to put the same things together to make a different meal."
It can be a challenge for the elderly, the disabled, the chronically ill and those without reliable transportation to pick up food themselves. So, home delivery options are vital.
The national Meals on Wheels program is a well-known example of this model. But numerous programs exist for veterans, seniors and the disabled.
Instead of a one-way relationship where one party is a giver and one is a receiver, mutual aid builds networks. The service model expanded during the pandemic. Now neighbors deliver groceries, offer medical assistance, arrange ride shares and provide other resources.
“Look for your community mutual aids in churches, in community centers. Some are just food; some are politically driven," McCartney notes. “That's not necessarily a bad thing. Just be aware of it."
A network of community gardens is growing across the country. Some are neighborhood-based. Clubs, nonprofit organizations or places of worship host many gardens, as well. They provide seasonal produce, often in exchange for volunteering.
Many organizations and professional groups share free meal offers, vouchers and gift cards for members who have fallen on hard times. Friends and colleagues deliver food through coordinated meal trains.
Groups spread the word through official websites, newsletters and social media accounts. Facebook groups, group texts, email newsletters and WhatsApp messages also help spread the word.
McCartney points to a program that provides specialty foods from restaurants to out of work restaurant and bar employees as an example of this type of partnership. Fight2Feed referred people to the program. The close-knit restaurant community also alerted their colleagues in need.
Food insecurity is a complex and widespread problem. But there are many tools available to keep food on the table. Millions of Americans working together to help.
“You're not alone," says McCartney. “We're all in the same boat and we're just trying to make it through. There's help. There's food. And there's hope."